Years & Years' superb sophomore album, 2018's Palo Santo, is a dynamically realized production, rife with religious imagery and themes of sex, love, and devotion, all pulsing with a bright sense of dance club absolution. Jumping off from their BRIT Award-nominated debut, 2015's Communion, the trio of lead singer Olly Alexander and instrumentalists Mikey Goldsworthy and Emre Türkmen have crafted an even more infectious collection of songs, often inspired by late-'80s and early-'90s R&B. Joining them this time out are a handful of talented producers including Kid Harpoon, Greg Kurstin, GRADES, and others. If Communion drew accolades for its deft balance of arty electronica and pop hooks, Palo Santo finds Years & Years pushing the balance toward the latter without losing any of their creative depth. A big reason for their ability to do so is Alexander, who soars throughout, his emotive, melismatic croon framed by bubbly synths, delicate piano, and insistent beats. It's a sound that brings to mind a superlative combination of Michael Jackson and Erasure's Andy Bell. It also doesn't hurt that Alexander (an openly gay man) also has a lot to say, especially about relationships, sexual desire, and how a dancefloor can be as sacred as a church. On "Hallelujah" he ruminates on a recent breakup and hits the club in search of "Somebody like you that I can move to this to/Until our bodies are singing hallelujah." With all of Alexander's religious/sexual iconography, the album feels like a revelatory bridge between Cherish-era Madonna and the work of similarly inclined contemporaries like Troye Sivan and Justin Timberlake. Without ever being too explicit, Alexander explores the nature of one's sexuality in a world that often shames people for not fitting into a specific paradigm, and how that pressure and guilt can affect relationships. As he sings on "Sanctify," "You don't have to be straight with me/I see what's under your mask/I'm a man like you/I breathe the richness of the dancers' dance." With Palo Santo, Years & Years have crafted an album that pulses with that richness.
AllMusic Review by Matt Collar